Our imperative is happiness. We have a right to be happy, or so we think. Especially in America, the pursuit of happiness is seen as a birthright, a covenant we sign with life from our first cry. Happy people smile from magazine covers; merry models make even impotence and incontinence look delightful.

“To the European it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy,’” psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed in his international bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning. “But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”

There is a counterpoint to this relentless promise of happiness: If you are suffering, something must be wrong with you. Snap out of it! Or at least take it elsewhere. Even the rally cries (“God only gives you what you can handle”) carry a hidden undertone of “It’s your fault if you can’t handle it.” As if suffering were a blemish we could wipe away if only we tried hard enough.

If I had one free wish at the fairy booth, I’d use it to make the entire world happy. But according to a study published by the American Psychological Association, the pressure to be happy actually makes people verifiably unhappy. A society infused with the expectation to experience happiness can be quite merciless toward those who despair. Then we’re not only unhappy, but “also ashamed of being unhappy,” Frankl wrote. “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

Cultivating an optimistic outlook is a fabulous asset that has proven to positively affect our health and inner strength. These benefits are real. But beware: Forcing optimism on anyone, including yourself, to mask true feelings accomplishes nothing.

The tyranny of positive thinking is everywhere, and the exuberant cries of sales personnel and well-meaning life coaches to cheer up might have quite the opposite effect. Repeating affirmative phrases — “I’m happier and happier” — while refusing to deal with the mess underneath can be just another version of denial. Before we can overcome suffering, we need to go through it. The way beyond suffering leads through, not around.

Acknowledging facts of life, being truthful about what we can handle, engaging in honest self-reflection, and asking for and accepting help is part of developing a resilient mindset. While a positive outlook is definitely a big joker in this wild ruckus called life, glossing over difficulties is not.

There is a difference between happiness — temporarily having our needs and goals satisfied — and meaning — finding and fulfilling our life’s purpose. Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister found that negative life events tend to decrease happiness but increase meaning.

Forty percent of Americans say they do not have a purpose in life. I find this number startling. Not having a purpose in life has a direct impact on our well-being, our health, even our life expectancy. If we don’t know what we’re here for, what are we doing here? This is one of the avenues of post-traumatic growth: suffering reduces our happiness, at least temporarily, but it often sets us on the path to finding meaning, and thus ultimately, a different, deeper kind of well-being.
We obviously don’t need suffering to find our calling, but it happens to be where we often discover it. “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice,” Viktor Frankl realized. “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

References

Mauss, I.B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion 11, 807–815.

Zack, M. M., Lucas, R.E., & Burns, A. (2010). Well-being assessment: An evaluation of well-being scales for public health and population estimates of well-being among US adults. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being 2, 272-297.

Hill, P. L. & Turiano, N. A. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological Science 25, 1482-1486.

Zöllner, T. & Maercker, A. (2006). Posttraumatic growth in clinical psychology — A critical review and introduction of a two component model. Clinical Psychology Review 26, 638.

Chasing a rainbow photo available from Shutterstock